The aim of this paper is to analyse the role that the Japanese Government has played in the development of alternatives to conventional vehicles, the effect of government programmes, and the importance of technical flexibility in government support schemes. The focus is on battery-powered electric vehicles (BPEVs), hybrid electric vehicles (HEVs), and fuel cell electric vehicles. The effects of government policy and the process of innovation are analysed from a systems approach drawing on the literature regarding technical change and innovation. The whole chain of government support, including the context in which these different policies have been implemented since the early 1970s, is studied. The Japanese Government has adopted a comprehensive strategy including R&D, demonstration programmes and market support guided by long-term strategic plans. The role of the Government has been that of a conductor in the development process supplying both R&D support and artificially created niche markets, and easing the way for targeted technologies by means of legislation and standards. Despite this, the targeted technology (the BPEV) has not been established on the market. However, the recent market success of the HEV can partly be attributed to the government support of the BPEV technology. The enabling component, the electric drivetrain, was developed for automotive use within the BPEV programmes offered by the MITI. This technology was later utilised in the HEV. The history of BPEVs in Japan demonstrates that "picking winners" in government policy is not easy. Despite a sustained and ambitious policy by the MITI, the development of alternative vehicles never unfolded according to plan. The success factors for policy seem more related to technology specific features than the particular policy style. Our conclusion is that flexibility, adaptability and cooperation in terms of technical choice is necessary in policy. This increases the chances of a technology surviving the long journey from idea to competitive technology. Another conclusion is that market support, even in the early phases of development, is an important complement to R&D for gaining experience and building markets.